Trump order will hit climate science worst

Moving money away from climate research in the US will have an adverse impact around the world

US President Donald Trump’s executive order repealing previous president Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan will have an effect outside the US more symbolic than substantial, except in one crucial area – climate science.

Within the US, the effect of the repeal remains to be seen. Trump made it a point to portray his order as bringing jobs back to the coal sector, but many of the states that make up that country have moved from coal to renewable energy (RE) for their electricity needs. They have done so for business reasons, since RE is now cheaper for them. Given the federal structure of the US, the states can easily continue with their current policies. And anyway, the executive order may well face a legal challenge. Plus, implementing the order will take considerable time.

Andrew Steer, President & CEO of World Resources Institute, said “the administration is out of step with U.S. companies, investors and consumers who want clean energy that is delivering jobs and revitalizing communities.

Michael Brune, Sierra Club Executive Director, said because of strong local action to replace coal and gas with clean energy we are on track to meet the Clean Power Plan’s 2030 emissions targets as soon as next year, and clean energy growth nationwide will continue unabated. The good news is that the safeguards Trump wants to shred – like the Clean Power Plan – are on a strong legal footing and the public will have the chance to voice its objections as the Trump administration tries to roll them back.”

Reacting the executive order, mayors of New York, San Francisco, New Orleans and Austin pledged to continued pushing green energy plans.

However, given the executive order and the likely attitude of the US Environmental Protection Agency under climate sceptic Scott Pruitt, advances in RE research may be hit to some extent, because federal financial support for such research will probably vanish.

President Trump’s order did not say anything about the US pulling out of the Paris climate agreement. But given his strong opposition to the agreement during his campaign, he may pull out. The international climate community agrees such a move will have a psychological effect. Other governments may slow down their combat against climate change, especially if their industry chambers pressure them to do so.

But recent history shows that such a pull-out is just as likely to work the other way. There is a precedent of the US going back on its word on climate change agreements. The first big global agreement in this sphere was the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, under which developed countries had to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that cause climate change. The US government under Bill Clinton signed the protocol, but the next government under George W. Bush Jr did not ratify it. So, the US stayed out.

Other developed countries were quite upset about the non-ratification, because they felt this gave US industry an unfair advantage. That is why these countries were so keen to include the US in the next agreement, the one reached in Paris in December 2015.

If the Obama-era Clean Power Plan is effectively scuppered, the US will not be able to meet its commitment under the Paris agreement. So, whether the US officially pulls out of the agreement or not will be of academic interest only. All this will surely anger industrialists in other developed countries again, but not to the same extent as before. The world is not the same as it was in 2001.

American industrialists have been replaced by Chinese manufacturers as the main global competitors. And China clearly sees a big business opportunity in RE. Already, most of the solar panels and wind turbines used anywhere in the world are made by the Chinese. Now, China has decided to invest at least another US$360 billion in RE by 2020.

Despite its decision not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, the US remained a very influential player in international climate negotiations because it is the world’s largest economy and second largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Developing countries, including India, made emission control commitments under the Paris agreement largely due to the insistence of the US. If the US now pulls out of the agreement, they will have good reason to feel betrayed.

But it is unlikely to derail the agreement. The last global climate summit took place in the Moroccan city of Marrakech as the US presidential election results came out, and there was much talk there about the effect of a possible Trump pull-out. But finally, there were strong indications that the rest of the world is now ready to go ahead with their agenda irrespective of what the US may do.

American analysts feel the Paris agreement was made possible by a 2014 agreement between the US and China, the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters. So, they are worried about the effect of a pull-out on China. That remains to be seen. But recent announcements and investments by China do not indicate any pullback.

“There are countless countries ready to step up and deliver on their climate promises and take advantages of Mr. Trump’s short-termism to reap the benefits of the transition to the low-carbon economy,” said Laurence Tubiana, the chief French negotiator during the crafting of the Paris agreement.

However, international climate finance will be adversely affected by a US pull-out. Under the Paris agreement and previous decisions, developed countries are committed to provide US$100 billion per year to developing countries by 2020 to help a move towards a greener global economy.

What happens to that if the US pulls out? Not very much. The US government commitment out of that US$100 billion is US$3 billion. The US will lose face if it reneges on that commitment, but that is about all.

The one area that will really suffer on a global scale is climate science. American scientists in government and university laboratories are at the forefront of climate research, and there is every indication that their funding will be seriously slashed, if not stopped altogether.

This will be a deplorable development. Other countries will have to take up the slack, but that will take time, and the world will suffer.

Trump’s executive order was met with dismay around the world. Erik Solheim, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, said, “This is not the time for any country to change course on the very serious and very real threat of climate change. The science tells us that we need bolder, more ambitious commitments.”

But even within that dismay, it was clear that the rest of the world was no longer willing to wait for the US. Manuel-Pulgar Vidal, WWF’s global Climate & Energy Practice Leader, said “hampering the US’ ability to deliver on its international climate commitments will impact the world’s climate trajectory, but it will not define its outcome. Our ability to achieve the promise of the Paris Agreement does not rest on the actions of one government alone. At COP22 (climate summit) held in Marrakech last year, French President (Francois) Hollande said the Paris Agreement is an ‘irreversible’ process. We agree.”

This article was originally published by India Climate Dialogue